One of the beautiful things about being a woman in the 21st century is that society as a whole is starting to understand what we all knew intuitively from the start: empowerment is not a feeling, it’s a state of mind, and one that will look different for every person. For some women, it means running for office or pursuing a high-profile promotion. For others, it means choosing to be a stay-at-home mom in spite of a promising career. And sometimes, for any and all of us, it can be as simple as recognizing in your darkest moment that there is light at the end of the tunnel. So if reading more was on your New Year’s resolution list, then the 10 books below will help you explore everything it means to be a woman and everything it means to be proud of it.
1. Yes, Please — Amy Poehler
SNL alum and Parks and Recreation producer/star/general powerhouse Amy Poehler’s book Yes, Please is part memoir, part social commentary, 100 percent primer in Taking No Shit. Poehler’s combination of wry humor, comedic hubris (at one point she says she has the Angelina Jolie of vaginas), and genuine self-reflection allows an intimate glimpse behind the impressive resume of a woman who says upfront she’s a private person and the concept of the book makes her uncomfortable. Aside from expressing a genuine humility and deep gratitude for the people who helped get her there (including a number of touching sections about her parents), she discusses love, sex, childbirth and plastic surgery with both authority and poignancy, and by the end of the book you find yourself not only deeply connected to Poehler, but ready to greet life head on using those two magical words: Yes, please.
How you’ll feel after reading it: Like life is crazy and big and wonderful and chaotic and a total mess and you don’t understand any of it but you’re also going to be OK and wow! you are so lucky to be here and do the things you do and you’ll be able to change the things you don’t like eventually if you work hard because you are woman and hear you ROAR.
2. I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman — Nora Ephron
Let us all take a moment to take the heavens that we were graced with Nora Ephron in the first place, shall we? If were born in the 80s or 90s you came of age with at least one of Ephron’s iconic movies and so whether you realized it or not, her writing shaped your ideas about life, love and most likely, your dream guy — unless you want to pretend that Sam’s speech about his deceased wife in Sleepless in Seattle doesn’t make you weep every time you hear it.
“Well, it was a million tiny little things that, when you added them all up, meant we were supposed to be together. And I knew it. I knew it the very first time I touched her. It was like coming home.”
I Feel Bad About My Neck was one of her final published works, and while its collection of essays touched on a number of important periods in her life, she speaks with the greatest clarity on what it means to be a woman of a certain age. Finding the beauty (and humor) in the mundane, she discusses the small tragedy of the empty nest, the hypocrisy of knowing that it is society that has trained you to criticize your appearance while also being unable to stop criticizing your appearance, and the importance of appreciating the good while it’s happening to you.
How you’ll feel after reading it: Like insecurities happen, but so does life. You only have time to focus on one.
3. The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls — Joan Jacobs Brumberg
Using a combination of diary entries, advertisements and other media excerpts from 1830 to the late 1990s, Brumberg traces changes in society’s fluctuating definition of what it meant to be a woman, and with it, changes in girls’ attitudes toward everything from clothing and cosmetics to breast size and menstruation. While chalk full of important (and at times disheartening) statistics on the correlation between self-satisfaction and media exposure, it is also a tender reflection on the universal vulnerability of being a girl, no matter the decade.
How you’ll feel after reading it: Like you want to go to the nearest middle school and look every single one of those girls in the eye and tell them that if they feel beautiful they are beautiful, and to never let anyone tell them otherwise. And then give them a big hug. And maybe some pizza.
4. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America — Barbara Ehrenreich
In the spring of 1998, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich set out to answer a simple question: is it actually possible to survive on a low-wage income in the United States? Over the course of two and a half years, Ehrenreich — who had a Ph.D. in cell biology — recounts her experiences working as a waitress, a Walmart employee and a cleaning woman, dismantling myths about the working poor (and working poor women) that, sixteen years after the book’s publication, are sadly still prevalent in American culture.
How you’ll feel after reading it: Like this system is most definitely rigged against a growing percentage of Americans and you’re angry and you really want to do something about it.
5. Quiet: The Power of Introversion in a World That Can’t Stop Talking — Susan Cain
Examining the West’s shift from a culture of character to a culture of personality, Susan Cain explores the idealization of extroversion, and the way it has shaped modern society. Using scientific definitions of both introversion and extroversion as they relate to stimulation preference levels, Cain discusses the positives and negatives of each, and what we can do as teachers, friends, parents and coworkers to better recognize and reinforce the value of introversion in our culture. Quiet proves in beautiful, well-researched detail that it takes all kinds to lead.
How you’ll feel after reading it: Like it’s OK to be quiet.
6. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — Rebecca Skloot
The story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer who grew up in Virginia, is both compelling and confounding. Prior to her death, she was known by family and friends as a hard worker and loving mother, and after her passing from cervical cancer in 1951, they believed they were the only ones to know or mourn her. Yet unbeknownst to them, cells taken during her cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins were already becoming a sensation, and would become one of the most important tools in medicine, used for everything from developing the polio vaccine to mapping the human genome. Fifty years later when a journalist (author Rebecca Skloot) comes to her family looking for more information about her, her impoverished children and siblings are shocked to discover just how crucial that cluster of cells has become. Author Skloot manages to intertwine disparate portions of the story — Lacks’ biography, a history of cancer study and treatment, an expose of the exploitation of poor African Americans for scientific gains, and an examination of the ethics of informed consent — into a singular tale that attempts to both understand and properly honor the life of an otherwise unremarkable woman, whose DNA happened to change the world.
How you’ll feel after reading it: Like you want to go out and thank every unnamed person in the history of humanity who ever, in a part however small, contributed to the betterment of mankind. And like you want to start paying attention to the people who are doing it today.
7. Reading Lolita in Tehran — Azar Nafisi
A memoir by Professor Azar Nafisi, who returned to Iran during the revolution and taught there until departing in 1997. Though she expertly weaves Iranian history together with the narrative themes in the literature she teaches, Tehran centers primarily on a secret book club she began in 1995 with seven female students, who met weekly at her home to discuss works of Western literature. In a time when simply speaking well of the West was an invitation for imprisonment or death, eight brave women defied their government for the pleasure of one another’s company, and the love of a good book.
How you’ll feel after reading it: Like knowledge truly is power.
8. I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban—Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb
When thirteen year old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by Taliban agents because of her insistence on attending school, the world looked on in shock. In the five years since the attack we’ve not only had the privilege of seeing her recover, but go on to thrive, knowing that the world is somehow, in an intangible way, safer for the continued existence of her calm, determined presence. The memoir details growing up during the rise of the Taliban, the upbringing that made her both hungry for an education and eager to effect change in her country, and the aftermath of the shooting.
How you’ll feel after reading it: Like you want to stand up to oppressors everywhere and say No.
9. Memo to the President: How We Can Restore America’s Reputation and Leadership — Madeleine Albright
America’s first female Secretary of State, under the Clinton administration, you’d expect Secretary Albright to be a force de jour, and that her book would be brimming with tenacity and witticisms. Yet once again proving that female badassery comes in all shapes and sizes, Albright instead uses tact and the same diplomatic touch with which she held her position, to calmly explain extremely detailed plans for how to help America find its place again in the world’s shifting geopolitical landscape post-9/11. Bonus Points because this came out before President Barack Obama was elected (we’ll miss you, boo) and she called a number of policy decisions he’d actually end up making because her ideas, just like her, are the absolute best.
How you’ll feel after reading it: Like Madeline Albright was America’s mom, but she was too good for any of us to appreciate her at the time. Like your mom, she was right about everything. Like you should call your mom.
10. The Red Tent — Anita Diamant
Though a minor character in the Old Testament of the Bible, The Red Tent expands the story of Dinah, the daughter and sister of two far better known biblical characters, and gives a powerful, creative spin to her otherwise footnoted life. The Tent of the title refers to the tent where women of the tribe must, according to the law, live in while menstruating or giving birth, and as a result the book explores not only one girl’s struggle to find her identity as a person outside of her identity as a woman, but the bonds of sisterhood that are forged by the sharing of such a common, but deeply personal experience.
How you’ll feel after reading it: Like you wish you and your girlfriends could had been this chill and in tune with your bodies when you were in high school, and like the next time you get your period, you’re going to have a party for it.
About The Author
As a lifelong political nerd, scoring a job as a member of the Democratic Communications team for the Michigan House of Representatives was an absolute dream. I am fascinated by the intersection of politics and culture in the 21st century, and having had the opportunity to travel extensively prior to starting my work here, I take special interest in what it means to be a woman, a citizen, and a millennial in various cultures around the world. I am genuinely interested in just about everything, and perhaps more importantly, interested in writing about it.